Thursday, April 05, 2007

Three Cheers for Herodotus!

I really like Herodotus. He seems like a guy you would have wanted to have over for a dinner party. Give him a good meal, a couple of kraters of wine, and get him talking.

When contemporary historians deny that "real" history can include good storytelling, I think of Herodotus, the storyteller extraordinaire. Now, it turns out that his careful recording of outrageous and colorful local stories may have captured a bit of truth that others missed:
Geneticists have added an edge to a 2,500-year-old debate over the origin of the Etruscans, a people whose brilliant and mysterious civilization dominated northwestern Italy for centuries until the rise of the Roman republic in 510 B.C. Several new findings support a view held by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus — but unpopular among archaeologists — that the Etruscans originally migrated to Italy from the Near East.

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An even more specific link to the Near East is a short statement by Herodotus that the Etruscans emigrated from Lydia, a region on the eastern coast of ancient Turkey. After an 18-year famine in Lydia, Herodotus reports, the king dispatched half the population to look for a better life elsewhere. Under the leadership of his son Tyrrhenus, the emigrating Lydians built ships, loaded all the stores they needed, and sailed from Smyrna (now the Turkish port of Izmir) until reaching Umbria in Italy.

Despite the specificity of Herodotus’ account, archaeologists have long been skeptical of it. There are also fanciful elements in Herodotus’ story, like the Lydians’ being the inventors of games like dice because they needed distractions to take their minds off the famine. And Lydian, unlike Etruscan, is definitely an Indo-European language. Other ancient historians entered the debate. Thucydides favored a Near Eastern provenance, but Dionysius of Halicarnassus declared the Etruscans native to Italy.

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With the geneticists in disarray, archaeologists had been able to dismiss their results. But a new set of genetic studies being reported seems likely to lend greater credence to Herodotus’ long-disputed account.

Three new and independent sources of genetic data all point to the conclusion that Etruscan culture was imported to Italy from somewhere in the Near East.

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As for Herodotus, Ms. Jovino said she believed, liked most modern historians, “that he does not always report real historical facts.” often referring to oral tradition.

But at least on the matter of Etruscan origins, it seems that Herodotus may yet enjoy the last laugh.

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